The first five slots will go, without question, to schools from Power Five conferences. Barring upsets this weekend, that means Alabama will be No. 1, Notre Dame and Ohio State will take the next two slots and Clemson will be No. 4. Then Texas A&M and Florida will be either Nos. 5 and 6 or 6 and 5. Those last three schools, it’s worth noting, already have one loss.
In all likelihood, the next two teams will be Cincinnati (7-0) and Brigham Young (8-0) — although the Bearcats have a very tough game Saturday at Central Florida. That’s unless the committee chooses to make it clear right now that, yet again, non-Power Five schools need not apply for a spot in the four-team playoff.
In a twist, you can bet the 13 committee members will spend Saturday waving black-and-gold UCF pompoms, hoping the Golden Knights take Cincinnati off the list of potential December headaches. Three years ago, UCF was the headache that wouldn’t go away, going 13-0, including a Peach Bowl win over Auburn, which had beaten Alabama and Georgia — the two teams that played in that season’s CFP title game.
UCF had no chance to make the playoff and so, after beating Auburn, simply declared itself the national champion, a move that made a number of people in Alabama lose their minds. A billboard in Tuscaloosa paid for by UCF fans challenging Alabama to a home-and-home series didn’t make the Knights any more popular in Nick Saban country.
There was talk at the start of this coronavirus saturated season that perhaps the CFP would expand its four-team playoff to eight for this season, if only because the uncertainty of pandemic scheduling would make it that much more difficult to select just four teams.
How do you choose between a 6-0 team and a 10-1 team if they didn’t play one another? Let’s get more specific: How do you judge a Clemson team that had to play its one truly tough game of the season on the road and without Heisman Trophy favorite Trevor Lawrence, who was sidelined by a positive test?
Not surprisingly, the knights of the CFP never seriously considered expanding to eight teams for one reason: With expansion, they would almost have to let in at least one non-Power Five team — and perhaps (gasp!) two. The real fear was that a Group of Five school might knock off a Power Five heavyweight, much the same way that UCF beat Auburn. The real fear was that a Group of Five school might knock off a Power Five heavyweight, much the same way that UCF beat Auburn.
Barta shot down the idea of expansion when it came up in the past, claiming it was too “complicated.”
Since when did this become splitting the atom? With the entire season already pushed back, you would simply play the four quarterfinals on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, the semifinals a week later and the championship game Jan. 18 — exactly one week after the scheduled date.
The four quarterfinals would be played at the sites of the four New Year’s Six Bowls that aren’t hosting semifinals this year — the Orange, Peach, Fiesta and Cotton. The Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl would remain as the semifinal sites. If the Rose Bowl objected to being moved from its traditional New Year’s Day spot, you could do one of two things: Tell organizers to get over themselves and deal with the uniqueness of the situation or let the Rose Bowl become a quarterfinal and play in its normal slot.
How complicated is that?
If there were an eight-team playoff, Cincinnati still would have to win at UCF on Saturday, at Temple the next weekend and at Tulsa in three weeks before playing in the American Athletic Conference championship game. Brigham Young, on the other hand, is 8-0 with only North Alabama and San Diego State left to play — although there’s talk about resurrecting the annual game against Utah on Nov. 28 if Arizona State, Utah’s scheduled opponent, continues to have coronavirus issues.
At the moment, Utah has yet to play a game, but the Utes might be the toughest test the Cougars would face this season. You can bet Barta and company will be shaking their heads sadly when they talk about BYU’s schedule. The Cougars have one very impressive win — 51-17 over Boise State. The rest of their opposition has been less than stellar; like a lot of teams, they had to cobble together a schedule after losing games before the season began.
That said, it’s worth noting that BYU has beaten its opponents by an average of 31 points, and the romp over Boise State shouldn’t be overlooked.
But it almost certainly will be. In fact, if Cincinnati does win out, BYU probably will be relegated to a second-tier bowl even if it, too, is undefeated. The big guys guarantee the little guys one spot in their New Year’s Six rotation to keep them quiet. They aren’t diverting the big bucks from one of those bowls to a second upstart anytime soon. BYU will be told to go play in the Armed Services Bowl-Las Vegas Bowl sandbox with its little friends, regardless of record. So will Coastal Carolina, Marshall and Liberty — all unbeaten and ranked — even if each wins win out.
The ESPN talking heads were already setting the committee up for its announcement this past Saturday, with Augusta National Golf Club — a place where the non-rich are told not to bother hoping for membership — as their backdrop.
“Cincinnati and BYU are excellent football teams,” we were told. “But could they survive an SEC schedule?”
Question: Could anyone in the ACC other than Clemson and (perhaps) one-year member Notre Dame survive an SEC schedule? Could anyone in the Big Ten not named Ohio State or (perhaps) Wisconsin survive? How about anyone in the Pac-12 or the Big 12?
If Clemson and Notre Dame meet again in the ACC championship game, the committee should choose the winner. No one else from the ACC is worth even thinking about. The SEC has three of the top six teams in the current polls, but, again, one representative is enough. Same in the Big Ten, which is the ACC equivalent but in bigger (if mostly empty) stadiums this fall.
The Big 12? Forget it. Same with the Pac-12, although if either USC or Oregon wins out, it will get the fourth bid.
If Cincinnati finishes unbeaten against a very tough schedule, it should absolutely be the fourth team. If the Bearcats drop a game, an unbeaten BYU should take that slot.
Remember this: Nine of the 13 committee members have direct ties — current or past — to Power Five schools. One, Ken Hatfield, coached both at the Power Five (Clemson) and non-Power Five (Rice, Air Force) levels. Three others come from non-Power Five schools.
There’s a reason for this imbalance. It strictly has to do with setting up three games that can get the best possible ratings for ESPN, the CFP’s partner/sugar daddy. Let’s go in the room as the members discuss the merits of a one-loss Notre Dame team vs. an unbeaten Cincinnati or BYU. Then again, let’s not. We all know the outcome already.
One more thing: Alabama has yet to take UCF up on its challenge. No surprise there, either.